FOOD & DRINK // Casual Friday (now, every day)

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August 1, 2011
By: Carla Waldemar
Carla Waldemar
“The tablecloths!” That’s the short answer to what prompted Saffron’s Wadi brothers to reinvent their revered fine-dining restaurant. “Get rid of the tablecloths! A man in a Twins shirt dropped in, looked around, and decided he wasn’t dressed as nicely as the room (‘No, no! Your shirt costs more than my whole outfit,’” Wadi insisted, to no avail.) So the tablecloths had to go, and, with them, the French style of cooking Chef Sameh Wadi had employed. And the accompanying prices.

Reopened in early July, its walls that frame the now-black tabletops pulsate with shimmering peacock and persimmon, an atmosphere as warm as the new menu. Today’s list encompasses the flavors of the wider Mediterranean as well as home-style cooking garnered from treasured, handwritten recipes Wadi’s grandma had amassed. It’s less about flash, more about informality: the comfort food of the past brought into the future with tiny, creative tweaks. The Turkish-style bastirma, one of the new tapas offerings, features air-dried beef, thin as tissue paper, sided with grapes and almonds and a lemon slice — elegant in its simplicity.

Kibbe and kofta appear, along with grandma’s not-to-be-missed long-cooked green beans, bearing a smoky tomato scent. And there’s hummus, of course — rich with good olive oil and singing with a welcome note of lemon. A spread of smoky eggplant, too, infused with tahini. And giant beans, like limas gone berserk, simply dressed with lemon, olive oil and salt. Oh, and lamb brains, which I was up for, but my companion threatened to desert the table. Next time (tapas $5-8).

The meal commenced with a complimentary dish of chick peas, slightly brined, to pop from their fibrous pods and crunch like peanuts — and just as addictive. Then, after our fill of tapas (well. almost), an intriguing salad of watermelon cubes paired with those of heirloom tomatoes, all showered with sharp feta, a jazzy jolt of charred jalapenos and snips of basil. Refreshing!

Next, if you get this far, entrees. The legendary tagines (stews) remain, thank goodness, but now they’re supplemented with fare such as our order of lamb, slow-cooked until almost melting under a suave caramelized paprika butter, along with a drizzle of house-made garlic yogurt and a heap of faro grains pocked with sweet tomato. Next, we shared a traditional 16-vegetable couscous, simmered almost into jam, then reawakened with the sweet-sharp tang of preserved lemon.  At tableside, a server pours a stream of hot (in both senses) harissa broth to bring the dish alive.

Desserts are even more complex in their makeup. For instance, the standard chocolate ganache cake one sees on every menu from here to Detroit here is embellished like no other with milk chocolate-ras el hanout ice cream, salted caramel and caramelized — um, nuts? — no, Rice Krispies! The same understated extras elevate the cool berry-hibiscus soup. In the standard berry broth float scoops of homemade pineapple yogurt sorbet and dime-sized islands of crunchy citrus meringue.

Affordable wines by the glass also are creative one-offs from the usual. (Bottle prices tend to soar, however.)

Saffron  //  123 N. 3rd St  //  746-5533  //